All fishermen know that success comes with patience. Catching fish is a waiting game.
And there is one creature regularly seen on the Sudbury riverside who has more staying power that any other: the grey heron.
Most days on the water meadows, if you get down before the walkers start criss-crossing the pastures, you will see a heron. There he was this morning, perched atop an alder tree, his long neck tucked into his chest, watching silently like an old man in a raincoat waiting for a bus.
I tried to ‘out-wait’ him and looked to other birds to pass the time. A willow warbler sang happily in nearby foliage; a moorhen picked its way along the opposite bank of the stream, twerking its white rear feathers; a cormorant powered overhead in a straight line. After ten minutes, my patience was shot. He had won, moving only a few times to preen and tidy some feathers on his breast.
When I was young, herons were a rare sight but today wherever there is water there is a likelihood you might see this stately bird. Sudbury Common Lands Charity rangers report seeing as many as three on the same meadow. In an age when a lot of wildlife is dwindling in numbers, herons, then, represent a success story – benefiting from less persecution and improved habitats and water quality.
But despite their relative familiarity, I can’t help standing and watching in awe each time I see a heron on the Common Lands. Sometimes you might spot one sat in the middle of a field, minding their own business; other times they can be seen walking along the hedge line, taking long strides like John Cleese at the Ministry of Silly Walks. A common sight is a heron standing ankle deep in water, erect and waiting for a fish to pass within striking range of its dagger-like beak.
There is a majesty about the heron but also a ruthlessness – they don’t just take fish, but also amphibians, and even small birds and mammals like water voles. Sometimes they will swallow prey alive – expanding their throats like a snake on stilts, before flying to a quiet spot to sit and digest their meal.
In medieval times, people thought that herons had supernatural powers and that they could magically attract fish to them. Fishermen used to carry a heron’s foot with them for good luck while fat from the unfortunate bird was spread along the fishing line in the hope it would improve the chances of hooking dinner.
For me, it is when a heron takes to the air that they become truly beguiling. They are big birds, standing around a metre tall, but with one flap of their oversized wings they are off. Moving slowly and deliberately, often giving out a ‘kronkkk’ call, they fly with neck tucked in, beak pointed out front and strands of black plumage waving behind the head. They look prehistoric, a throwback to the pterodactyls of deep time.
And over the eons that herons have stalked this land, they have evolved some incredible adaptions.
The heron’s sixth vertebra has become modified, so the neck can be held in an S-bend during flight and also drawn back to strike prey with that lethal yellow bill. Underneath its long, straggly breast feathers, the heron has what is called powder down – feathers that produce an oily substance, which it spreads across its body to stay clean and waterproof. Incredibly, herons have a pectinate toe on each foot; a ribbed digit like a comb that has evolved for such a job.
In recent times, other members of the heron family have called in on Sudbury’s Common Lands. People will be familiar with little egrets – close relatives of the herons – that can be seen lurking in the ditches and dykes. They are beautiful birds; herons in miniature and pure white. Their large feet are bright yellow and scientists believe they can use them to attract fish their way.
The little egret comes from southern Europe but as numbers on the Continent have increased, so it has expanded its range northwards and is now a common sight over here. It is the same trait that has seen other exotic waders like spoonbills, cranes and white storks establish themselves in small numbers in East Anglia.
On Sudbury’s Common Lands, there has also been one sighting of a Great White Egret – as the name suggests, a magnificent, white bird the size of our native heron. I am yet to see one but maybe, if I take a lesson from the grey heron and wait, and wait some more, I might just get lucky.